It’s nearly July, and many business schools are already starting to release their new or revised essay topics for the coming admissions season. During this pre-season warm-up period, many applicants seem to feel a strong temptation to grab those questions as soon as they come out, paste them into a Word file and just start WRITING, but even though this may produce an initial “rush” of accomplishment, it isn’t always the most efficient approach. A little bit of preliminary organization can go a long way towards helping you keep track of deadlines, set reasonable schedules and priorities for your work, and make the writing process much more manageable.
When I start working with applicants, one of the first things I ask them to do is put together a “master list” of the essays for each school they plan to apply to, so that we can come up with a strategy for our work together. Often, at the end of the season, people remark to me that this task—which many of them admit that they initially perceived as irritating “busy work”—has actually been one of the most useful elements of their application process. Over the years, I’ve seen many different versions of these lists, in Word, Excel, pdf and even Notepad files, but one of the most effective, and certainly the most colorful, came from someone I worked with just last year.
When my client first emailed her master list to me, I opened the document and thought “Wow, she has sent me a rainbow!” Her meticulously-organized spreadsheet contained a separate column for each of the seven schools on her list, along with the first- and second-round deadlines for each school. Below each school’s heading, each essay topic was color-coded, cell by cell, according to each unique type of essay. The “goals” essay topics, for example, were highlighted in purple, while the “leadership” essays were blue, the “background and values” essays pink, the “accomplishments” essays, red, the “failure” essays, for those schools requesting them, green… and so on.
Sure, the document was the Excel equivalent of spilling a couple of pounds of M&Ms across someone’s desktop, but my client’s colorful approach made it incredibly easy for us to pick out which types of essays she would have to answer for multiple schools, and then discuss both the overall topic AND the nuances of each school’s specific essay prompt.
At a glance, for example, we could see that this applicant had to write “goals” essays ranging from 500 – 1500 words, and that some of these essays required an in-depth assessment of the career path she had taken up to that point, while others placed minimal emphasis on the past, focusing mostly on her future plans. This, in turn, helped us figure out that in some cases, she would have to find another place to include important information that she had originally hoped to put into the goals essay.
Under the broad “umbrella” topic of the goals essay, some schools also asked how the applicant would contribute to the learning experience of her classmates, while other schools reserved a separate essay topic for those details. She had assigned the same shade of purple to those separate prompts, knowing that she would probably be able to pull some material out of the longer essay to create her responses.
Essentially, this color-coded document—which probably took her no more than a couple of hours to prepare—was a fantastic visual tool that consolidated everything we would need to know for our work together, helping us cut straight to the core of what she needed to put together for each program. Then—cross-referencing length restrictions and deadlines—we figured out how to prioritize each document.
In this case, we decided to deal with the longest and most inclusive “goals” topic first, reasoning that it would give us more to work with when it came to choosing which elements of the original piece we could trim down for shorter essays, and which sections we might be able to re-work for essays that took a slightly different slant on the topic.
This color-coded approach also helped us to identify the “outliers”—those essay topics that truly were unique to each school, and that she would have to set aside extra time to work on; this minimized the chance of nasty surprises and last-minute panic! My client started work on her applications in mid-August of last year, using this document as a starting point, and she was able to put together terrific applications to all seven schools before the first-round deadlines.
Naturally, there are as many different ways to set up an application strategy as there are applicants, and I’m certainly not prescribing this as THE way to do it, but I wanted to share it as a great example of how a little bit of pre-planning can streamline the entire process. So… what are your favorite colors?
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